How NOT to Understand the Bible

In my last post I wrote about the common sense principles for interpreting Scripture. At this point, I thought I’d focus on poor ways to understand God’s words. These are approaches to Scriptures that really exist, and are used by some—but not for the purpose of understanding what the Lord had to say, as much as their ways of interpreting the Bible in a more “favorable” (to what they want the Bible to say) way.

“Love Letters”. This approach to interpretation sees the books, especially the letters of the New Testament, as love letters to the churches. When viewed in this way, the commands turn into suggestions, proposals, or counsel. From this perspective, there’s nothing with hard edges in the New Testament, nothing that demands anything of us, no pressure, no lines in the sand, no expectations. They are “love letters” that coax us, appeal to us, and seek to woo us; but in the end would never judge or condemn us. Of course, anyone who’s ever read the following would have a hard time finding anything but hard edges.

  • Galatians 1:8, 9 “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
  • Matthew 7:21-23 ““Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’”
  • John 3:3-5 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus *said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’”
  • 1 Corinthians 16:22 “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha.”
  • James 2:14-20 “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?”

And there are many, many more. The Scripture is a gift of love from our heavenly Father, but we should never mistake it for a mere love letter.

“Occasional letters”. This strategy for understanding the Bible attempts a more academic means of interpretation by calling the New Testament letter (and all the other books of the Bible) “occasional”. What they mean is that the books of the Bible were written on a particular occasion, to a particular people, at a particular time in history, living in a particular society, with particular problems, for a particular reason—and essentially, have no real application to modern mankind. This makes the Bible merely a curiosity, a history book full of stories and teachings that have no meaning to us at all. While it is true that the books, especially the letters were written to address the problems and circumstances of people in the first century, it is not true that the commands, examples, rebukes, exhortations, etc. have no application to modern men. Paul teaches us, (1 Corinthians 10:11) “Now these things happened to them [Old Testament people] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” Men’s sins, weaknesses, situations, and problems haven’t changed since the creation; and God’s solutions remain just as valid, just as fresh, just as applicable as the day that Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John spoke or wrote them.

“The writers were primitive, naive, and culturally biased.” This attempt to interpret (or reinterpret) the Bible comes from an arrogant assumption that modern men are more intelligent, more sophisticated, less gullible, and more advanced than men of the ancient world. The world of the ancients was like the childhood of mankind, while we are today more like the adults of our species. According to this approach to Scripture there are things that may have applied then, but don’t apply now—things like gender roles, sexual morality, and even stories about creation and miracles. Their smug reasoning goes that mankind needed its fairy tales and artificial boundaries back then, but that our mature age needs no more such myths and boundaries now. But increasing knowledge has only helped validate the “fairy tales” of creation, the flood, and the beginning of history; the problem of mankind really hasn’t changed—sin; the solution remains the same—Christ; the holy nature of God and His Son Jesus remains the same yesterday, today, and forever—Hebrews 13:8; and God’s truth is eternally valid—not subject a calendar or a “maturing” mankind seeking more moral leeway.

“Scripture may be treated like a cafeteria.” This method of interpretation is a popular one that that allows any individual reader of Scripture to determine which books, which passages, which verses, and which words are inspired and which are not—on the basis of what “I feel”. In this sort of reading of Scripture, each person’s reading is individually, uniquely understood, and we can make the Bible say pretty much anything we want. The problem is, of course, that this is not a valid way to understand anyone or anything. As in the case of a foolish child who hears a parent say, “You may not go to the store,” and interprets it to mean, “You may go to the store” (because the child felt that the word “not” wasn’t really authoritative); there will be punishment. It is the sum of God’s word that is the truth (Psalm 119:160), not just some.

“Truth doesn’t matter.” This manner of reading the Bible reduces Scripture to mere “interesting reading”. It comes from the modern notion that absolute truth doesn’t exist, and it is why you might occasionally hear, “That is his truth, but it’s not my truth.” This is a deep deception; it is an obvious deception; and it comes directly from the bowels of Hell. Truth does exist, it comes from God (whether scientific, spiritual, or otherwise), it is singular (there are not multiple truths about the same thing), and it does matter both here and in eternity.

“Details don’t matter.” Lastly, for now, there are those who want to interpret the Bible in only the broadest strokes; as long as you’re somewhere close, it’s OK. But is it really good enough if you sent someone to buy groceries that they come back having bought a car? After all, they bought something; close enough, right? Obviously, “close enough” isn’t a good interpretative approach. The details of specific commands matter. When you’re following map directions, it does matter whether you take I-93 or I-95, go north or south, or turn right or left—simply making some sort of turn down some road won’t get you where you want to go. When you’re baking a cake, it does matter whether you use salt or sugar, even if they’re both white and granular. And it matters to God whether we’re sprinkled or immersed, whether we sing or play music, whether we use bread and wine or steak and coffee, whether we confess Jesus or Zeus. It isn’t true that “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe something.”

There is no more important information in the world that that which we find in the Bible. Let’s not try to find ways around its truth, but read it to discover exactly what it is that our gracious Creator wants to tell us.

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About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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